Talking Movies

June 9, 2019

Notes on X-Men: Dark Phoenix

The last chapter in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men saga was the film of the week today in a return to Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

This is the way the X-world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. Simon Kinberg first arrived as X-screenwriter with the awful X-3, and now he rehashes X-3 as X-writer/director and makes it even worse, which is perversely impressive. X-3 has some rather nice music from John Powell, strong acting even in minor roles, and a number of upsetting moments (that were doubly upsetting for how badly Brett Ratner handled them) that leaned on the good work of the first two movies. This movie has A-list composer Hans Zimmer only occasionally elevating the material with emotive minimalism, some of the worst acting outside of X-Men: Origins – Wolverine, and absolutely no memorable moments whatsoever in part because there has been no good work done in previous movies to establish anything. Cyclops was killed off 20 minutes into X-3 by Jean Grey to establish she was out of control, and here Mystique is killed off 40 minutes in by Jean Grey to establish she is out of control. Kinberg shamelessly reuses dialogue and the ideas of X-3, but doubles down on them to make what was once annoying now insufferable.

Prior to her merciful death Mystique spends her screentime whingeing about Professor X, after she dies Beast takes up the whingeing baton to the point where you just want to shout at the screen “Why don’t you just move out of the mansion you’ve been living in rent-free for 30 years if you feel that strongly about him being a bad man?” Professor X is the villain of this piece. Somehow. I’m not nearly as sure as Kinberg is that hiding from a girl, who just murdered her mother because she wouldn’t stop listening to Glen Campbell, that her father regards her as a monster and wants nothing to do with her is a morally evil act. How does he think Jean would react to hearing that? Badly? Would she kill many people in her rage? Oh, the rage. In a scene where Jean is moody at a bar one longs for Sarah Snook in this role as Sophie Turner renders Jean Grey’s transformation into Dark Phoenix the temper tantrums of a petulant teenager. Jessica Chastain barely acts as the emotionless alien Vuk, and Jennifer Lawrence projects only deep boredom.

J-Law may be the audience avatar in that respect, fed up so much talent could be squandered on a twice-told tale. Kinberg has Christopher Nolan’s regular editor and composer, and yet there is a cut with the X-jet arriving and the team appearing as jarring as the scene John Ottman apologised for in Bohemian Rhapsody. The cinematographer of Avatar is on hand to, well, hide the action under cover of darkness and big swirly CGI. Watching X-Men and X-2 in recent days they really are films of the 1990s rather than the 2000s with their emphasis on practical effects to which CGI is added; a quaint notion long abandoned by Marvel and DC films that superpowers are more impressive interacting with tangible physical reality rather than being a welter of CGI battling a big swirly thing of CGI in a CGI landscape populated by CGI extras. There is some pleasing practicality here, but this is not a movie to stand beside Guy Hendrix Dyas’ amazing sets for X-2. And let’s remember the big swirly thing CGI that reached its nadir in X-Men: Apocalypse began in X-3 for Dark Phoenix’s powers.

Kinberg reprises it here in another display of creative bankruptcy. What exactly is the point of filming the Phoenix storyline? To plonk an actress down in mauve garb to stare moodily/blankly at everything for two hours while everyone stands around agonising over killing her while repeating that she’s unstoppably powerful and therefore can’t be killed unless she wishes it? Does that sound at all interesting? At this point it seems safe to say that the writing credits strongly suggest that the only X-screenwriters worth a damn were David Hayter, Zak Penn, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman, and everyone else was just coasting off their story ideas. It seems perilously close to the truth to say that, as set up by Bryan Singer’s original decisions, these films rarely worked without Hugh Jackman as Wolverine – the best of the bunch were X-Men, X-2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past. Maybe the reason for X-Men: First Class succeeding was that the charismatic turn by Michael Fassbender as vengeful hot-headed Magneto stood in for Wolverine. This is a terrible way for the X-Men to end given that they started the Marvel era.

It’s especially bad given that Disney will fold them into the MCU and a Marvel executive seems to think the signal problem with the X-Men was not their farrago of continuity, their revolving door of writers and directors, their recycling of the same stories, their failure to properly establish characters, their over-reliance on one actor, their ever-escalating budgets, their out of control CGI, their limited palette of character motivations and plots, but the fact that they were called the X-Men.

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November 24, 2010

Less than Glee-ful

I’ve finally been provoked into attacking Glee by its Gwyneth Paltrow episode, which showcased many of the reasons I dislike the show.

The endless hype is unbearable. Constant gossipy leaks about what songs will be used in forthcoming episodes and who’s going to appear in what role as a guest star. If a show advertises weekly who’s guest-starring and what they’re doing you would think it’s in trouble ratings-wise. Glee though seems to have made this its paradigm. But it is pathetic. If a show is good I will watch it, week after week. I wouldn’t tune into The Event randomly because they advertised that Bruce Campbell would be guest-starring. You know why? The Event is awful. Glee also cleaves to the approach of the film Chicago in apologising for being a musical. “Oh, it’s okay; they’re only singing because they’re in a choir or because it’s a fantasy sequence,” it seems to say. Well it’s not okay. I like musicals! I want characters to sing because they’re in a musical!! It is as if a gangster film had characters shrug apologetically at the camera every time someone ordered a hit or bribed a cop.

Glee is painfully formulaic. How many episodes wrap up with someone predictably learning a life-lesson through dialogue that you could guess almost from the cold open? Sure there are wincingly off-colour jokes along the way but on the macro level everything is staidly predictable. It’s like putting three drops of vinegar in an old wine bottle. Perhaps you need a different type of container… Even Talking Movies favourite Joss Whedon failed to puncture this bubble of self-satisfied obviousness in the episode he directed. When Matthew Morrison delivered a fatuous line about how much Glee meant to them at school and still meant now, and Neil Patrick Harris groaned and knocked his head against the bar, I waited for a wincing put-down of such sentimental shtick. Instead the god-like NPH merely moaned about missing Glee… Little wonder then that the season 1 finale scaled new peaks of cliché in juxtaposing Quinn’s labour with the rival club’s performance of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, before introducing an ocean of character inconsistency to allow Sue Sylvester ensure a second season before remembering who she was and confirming that she would remain their in-house villain.

Finally the show is an enormous live-action fax machine. Why re-stage David Fincher’s video for Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ shot for shot? Where precisely is the artistic achievement in replicating the ‘Timewarp’ from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or the closing number from Chicago, or the astounding ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ routine from Singin’ in the Rain? I’ve seen a theatrical Rocky Horror Show that gleefully diverged from the film’s over-familiar staging more than Glee ever dreamt of doing. A mere facsimile of an original adds nothing. The Bangles’ ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ pales next to Heathers’ ‘Float On’, which completely re-works that Modest Mouse original. Glee by contrast offers as a ‘re-working’ a ‘Singin’ in the Rain’/‘Umbrella’ mash-up, which ruined both songs. Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe was misfiring, but its sometimes inspired staging and re-working of incredibly familiar Beatles songs expose Glee’s lack of ambition. It begs the question is Glee a mere spark-notes, a substitute for people too lazy to watch the original musicals?

It’s like watching a teenager type out ‘The Dead’ on their laptop. Perfectly re-enacting something that didn’t need re-enacting because it was perfect the first time round will get you no respect. It shouldn’t. It deserves none. Just ask Gus Van Sant…

I can’t wait for people to get tired of this show.

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